F-35 engine backers plot their last stand

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee isn’t giving up on funding for the F-35 fighter’s second engine despite assertions from defense insiders that the program is gone for good. 

The Pentagon on Monday formally canceled the alternate-engine program, just weeks after lawmakers opted against funding the multibillion-dollar power-plant project in the 2011 defense funding bill.

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Defense observers said Tuesday the program is all but dead — but several sources said the project’s last stand likely will come as the House and Senate Armed Services committees craft 2012 Pentagon authorization measures.

Alternate engine proponents, including builders GE and Rolls-Royce, say the engine would save billions of dollars over its life and provide a backstop if the primary power plant fleet goes down. Opponents, including senior Pentagon brass, say it would “waste” $3 billion at a time when the nation is strapped for cash, adding it is not operationally required.

The industry teammates are looking mostly to Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) to lead an effort to keep the F136 engine program going, industry sources said.

“McKeon is pretty vocal about maintaining competing engines when the F136 is basically 80 [percent] through development,” one GE-Rolls source said Tuesday.

GE spokesman Rick Kennedy noted McKeon’s panel “is quite committed to competing engines, but we take the view that a creative proposal will be necessary.”

In a separate interview, Josh Holly, McKeon’s top spokesman, used a similar term when asked what it would take to revive the program: “a creative approach.”

What might an out-of-the-box plan look like?

Holly said Armed Services staffers are examining several options, including a provision requiring “that if there is a cost increase” for the F-35’s primary power plant, “then there would have to be a [restarted] competition.”

The committee will begin marking up a 2012 defense authorization bill early next month.
Another “creative” way of keeping the second engine alive would be “some level of significant contribution to the development costs on the companies’ part,” Kennedy told The Hill.

The second-engine builders also are eyeing a plan endorsed recently by the Senate.

“For the 2011 budget, the Senate proposed that [GE and Rolls-Royce] self-fund the balance of the budget year, and we had agreed, given we are 80 percent complete,” Kennedy said. “But during the fast-paced events leading to the signing of the bill, the proposal was not taken up by the House.”

In a later compromise version of 2011 defense spending legislation, however, Senate appropriators decided against funding the second engine — a decision that followed a much-publicized House vote to kill funding for the program.

That vote became a political hot button because the second engine would have brought jobs to Ohio, the home state of GOP House Speaker John Boehner. He did not vote on the amendment to zero funding for the project.

“There are a lot of discussions going on right now” about possible legislative language that would keep the second power plant program alive, Holly said.

Kennedy said he sees “a significant willingness in Congress to revisit the F136 funding debate as the consequences of terminating the engine are being fully understood.”

Kennedy said GE and Rolls officials see “bipartisan support for the engine on the merits of its performance and value.”

But even two Pentagon observers who have argued for different outcomes said Tuesday that — aside from one latch-ditch legislative attempt by McKeon to save the program —it likely is dead.

“It will be difficult to fully resurrect the F136 because in the past year, Congress has taken a step it had not previously: Both chambers have ... gone on the record to eliminate the program, which will make it that much more difficult to restart it,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense staffer now with the Heritage Foundation.

“The 2011 defense budget process [was] a preview of what to expect in 2012,” added Eaglen. “The legislative chaos of funding defense through additional continuing resolutions or ‘omnibus [or] minibus’ spending measures will add to the difficulty of restoring the alternate engine, even if there is political will to do so.”

She has called a second power plant for a fighter the Pentagon plans to buy thousands of “a critical insurance policy for America’s defense.”

Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute also forecast Tuesday that the program will end soon.
“Because the companies can’t prove that any public benefit results from spending billions of extra dollars, the program is likely to again fall victim to budget cutters in 2012,” said Thompson, who has long argued against the need for two engines for the F-35 fleet.